Imagine the life of a young lad who was never told that he was a good kid. “From the time [Edgar Chocoy] was born,” says immigration defense lawyer Kimberly Salinas (Emily Joy Weiner) in the documentary-theater piece De Novo, “he was seen as this poor kid from the slums of Guatemala City, then a gang kid from East L.A., then a criminal alien teenager in Immigration Court. I don’t think anyone ever got to see who he really was.” Salinas’s reflection makes clear that a seemingly trivial detail such as this can impose serious implications on a person’s self-esteem and that a life can sustain enormous consequences from it.
Houses on the Moon Theater Company writer and director Jeffrey Solomon’s De Novo—mas all de las frontiers (beyond borders) draws on a variety of sources, in the style of Gross Indecency; it has been created from immigration court transcripts, police reports, psychiatric exams, letters to the immigration judge, and other documents to tell the tragic story of one young boy, and, in doing so, illustrate the injustices of the U.S. immigration system.
The bilingual (English/Spanish) production is a plea to look once again at the case, as the play’s name suggests (de novo is a Latin expression meaning anew; in law, the expression “trial de novo” means a new trial by a different tribunal). By telling the story again, as if for the first time, there is hope that there might be a different outcome, although not for Edgar Chocoy, who died at the age of 17 in 2004.
But if a retrial won’t help Chocoy (sensitively portrayed by Manny Ureña), the hope is that it will help future victims of the system. The other multiple roles are shared by Zuleyma Guevara, who plays Chocoy’s soft-spoken, vulnerable mother and the matter-of-fact judge; and Camilo Almonacid, who also switches from good guy to bad guy with ease and acuity.
Chocoy was 6 months old when his mother left Guatemala to seek opportunities in the U.S., and 10 when he got into a gang. Chocoy is Everyman here, evidencing that most of the children in his neighborhood were involved in gangs—documenting the notorious Mara Salvatrucha gang. His life is a seesaw of threats and promises. In his short life, his hopes are raised when he recognizes that playing soccer with the more privileged kids could be a chance to escape his fate. Those times are happier ones.
Whether the potential for highs and lows are neutered intentionally because the production is based on dry documentary evidence is uncertain, but the drama is delivered and received with limited emotional range. The slideshow of actual footage throughout the production is powerful punctuation; the shot of Chocoy with his soccer friends, an exclamation mark.
The performance space is designed by Lawrence E. Moten III as a utilitarian office that serves as anything and everything the storytelling requires. Stacks of labeled brown file boxes piled high create the backdrop and also double as various levels for the actors; railings break up the space for courtroom scenes and also serve dramatically as percussion for Andrew Ingkavet’s original music; and appropriately serviceable, inexpensive carpeting is a simple, effective touch.
U.S. immigration is a hot potato that is not cooling off any time soon, so while De Novo, which originally premiered Off-Broadway in 2010, is set in 2004, it resonates just as uncomfortably today. This is not an objective presentation—the bias is clear from the get-go; it can feel like an imposition of political persuasion, and might not be for everyone. Socially and politically motivated work such as this typically draws a like-minded audience, effectively circulating its messages among themselves, falling on empathetic ears, and ensuring a smooth run, but De Novo would benefit from a wider reach and, perhaps, some agitation.
The company produces theater as a tool “to dispel ignorance and isolation through the amplification of unheard voices.” Its work is typically presented as a jumping-off point for discussion and debate, and this production is no exception. The audience has an opportunity at a question-and-answer session after every performance to engage purposefully with the creative team, furthering the company’s aim to “help communities come together.”
De Novo plays through Dec. 22 at New York Theatre Workshop’s Fourth Street Theatre (83 E. 4th St.). Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. on Mondays and Wednesdays through Fridays at 7:30 p.m., and at 7 p.m. on Saturdays; matinees are at 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For tickets, call (866) 811-4111 or visit nytw.org/next-door-nytw/.